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Missions 101

Posts By: Karl Dahlfred

Gay Marriage and the Future of Global Missions

Aug. 4, 2015By: Karl Dahlfred

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage nationwide, the internet has been alight with articles from almost every possible angle.  As an American and a Christian, I am fascinated and concerned about what this historic decision means.  But as a missionary living abroad, I am also concerned with how this decision will affect other countries and the work of global missions. 

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Of course, the U.S. is not the first to legalize gay marriage, and Christians in other nations (Canada and the U.K., for example) have reminded American Christians that legalized gay marriage doesn’t mean that the sky is falling.  However, the American Supreme Court decision is symbolic of a larger cultural juggernaut.  Given the influence that the U.S. currently has on the global scene, the pro-homosexuality zeitgeist that is now ascendant in the U.S. will most certainly have global ramifications.

Some readers may think that I am being alarmist.  I can understand that.  Where I work in Thailand, gay marriage and LGBT rights are barely a blip on the radar.  Every once in a while, there is a Thai news article about transgender bathrooms or a transvestite entering a female beauty contest. However, there is no widespread call for gay rights and equality in Thailand.  On the one hand, many Thai accept gays and transvesites as a normal part of society, despite the fact they don’t have the right to marry.  On the other hand, Thai culture at large is still fine with transvestites being the butt of jokes on TV comedy shows, and gay or transgender students regularly get made fun of in classrooms.  Thailand, as a whole, seems quite far from jumping on the gay marriage bandwagon.

But just because gay rights has not yet become a hot topic in Thailand (among other countries), that does not mean that those working abroad can safely ignore the Supreme Court decision.   Many trends have a way of making their way abroad.  And in a globalized world, this is truer than ever.  For that reason, I think that there are a number of implications that legalized gay marriage in the U.S. will have for global missions.   Some of these scenarios may not have occurred yet (or may not yet be widespread), but Christians involved in global missions should be aware that they are coming.

1)    Pro-Gay Missionary Candidates and Short-Term Workers
Many churches and missionary organizations might feel safe because they have an evangelical statement of belief which implicitly or explicitly endorses traditional marriage.  But as the cultural winds shift, we will begin to see men and women applying for missionary work who affirm an evangelical statement of faith but also support the gay marriage and/or homosexual practice.  They may or may not be gay themselves, but this discussion will likely come up.  Will churches and missionary organizations be prepared legally to deal with possible lawsuits from homosexual missionary candidates who were not accepted as missionary workers? (Read “How to protect your church against sexual orientation and gender identity lawsuits”)

Full-time missionary candidates are screened more thoroughly, but short-term workers are often required to sign only a very minimal statement of faith.  Wouldn’t a long-term missionary be surprised if he took a team of short-termers to do an outreach and discovered one of them assuring a transgender man that being gay is compatible with being a Christian?  Those processing potential short-termers need to start checking their views on homosexuality and gay marriage before they head out on a trip.

2)    Losing Supporters and Supporting Churches
There is an increasing number of otherwise evangelical churches and Christians in the United States who are changing their position on homosexuality, and endorsing the gay lifestyle as compatible with the Christian faith.  Other churches and believers are trying out a third way, stopping short of endorsing homosexuality but still supporting the legal right for homosexuals to marry.  Although missionaries who hold to traditional views of biblical sexuality might believe that none of THEIR supporters would go in those directions, it is wholly possible that missionaries and their supporters might find themselves on different sides, either theologically, politically, or both.  Given the nature of missionary communication, this issue might not come up while the missionary is on the field.  However, when there is more time to talk and catch up during home assignment (furlough), it might come to light that not everyone holds the view that they used to.  American missionaries in particular may lose supporters over this issue, and they need to be prepared for that possibility.

3)    Meeting Pro-Gay Missionaries on the Field
Since there is a growing divide among Christians over gay marriage, it is very likely that missionaries who hold to traditional marriage will meet other missionaries on the field who endorse legalized gay marriage, and perhaps LGBT views of gender and sexuality.  Just after the Supreme Court decision, I saw a pro-gay marriage photo posted by a missionary on the Facebook.  On the mission field, missionaries of different theological and ecclesiastical backgrounds tend to interact with each other much more often than they would in their home countries. Where there are few Christians, those who are Christians often stick together.  But will differing views on homosexuality increasingly cause division among tiny missionary communities around the world?

4)    Pro-LGBT American Foreign Policy
Many countries around the world are not enthusiastic about gay rights, but the U.S. government would like to change that.  Despite the fact that there are many atrocities and injustices around the globe that deserve attention, the Obama administration has decided to devote itself to pushing for gay rights in other countries.  For example, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have threatened to cut off aid to Uganda unless they repeal anti-sodomy laws.  It seems that if the Obama administration (and future administrations of the same mindset) are able to force the issue of gay rights upon foreign nations, they will do so.  Many missionaries and Christians outside the U.S. will sooner or later find themselves in a pro-gay marriage culture, if for no other reason than the fact that the countries they are working in are concerned to keep good relations with the U.S. (and to keep the aid money flowing).

The above four points are not comprehensive and over time the ramifications of the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage will become more apparent.  But as Christians, we need to be aware of the direction the culture is going so that we will be ready to be agents of grace in a hostile culture.  And those who are missionaries need to be observant of the storms brewing offshore, because what is far away now will eventually hit land somewhere.

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Doing the Ministry that You Didn’t Come to Do

Feb. 2, 2015By: Karl Dahlfred

Identifying your spiritual gifts can be both a blessing and a curse. 

It is a blessing to discover those things that you enjoy and do well. You can therefore choose to focus your time ministering in ways that play to your strengths. You are gifted in preaching, so you preach.  You enjoy serving, so you serve.

But knowing your spiritual gifts can also be a curse. It can foster an “I don’t do windows” attitude that refuses to serve outside your areas of giftedness. I don’t do admin. I don’t do kids ministry. I am not a teacher. I am not gifted in hospitality. If you are part of a megachurch, then maybe you can get away with such a wrong-headed attitude because there is an ample supply of people who want to do the things that you don’t want to do. But if you are in a small ministry setting, don’t count on it.

 As much as possible, we want to serve according to the God-given capacities that the Lord has given us. But sometimes we need to “take one for the team”. We need to do what needs to be done because there is no one else who is willing and able to do it. Whether it is a small rural church with a solo pastor, or a pioneering church plant on the mission field, the full range of spiritual gifts is not always present in that small, fledgling group that comes together for Sunday worship. Maybe you don’t have any musically gifted people. Or there is no one who has a passion for working with kids. Or nobody responds to the request for volunteers to set up the chairs and the coffee pot. Out of the twenty people that you have coming inconsistently, there is nobody who is really invested in the church except you and your spouse. What do you do then? Do you fold your arms and pout, claiming that “I am not called to photocopy and fold the Sunday bulletins”? Do you refuse to serve tables in order to devote yourself to the ministry of the Word and prayer?

 In Acts 6, the apostles were able to appoint a group of godly men to take care of the needs of the Hellenistic widows so that they could attend to preaching and to prayer. That was a greatoffice-worker-looking-at-his-notebook_zJXEJHwd delegation of spiritual authority and recognition of giftedness in the congregation. But in many ministry situations, there is an insufficient pool of godly people to draw from. If you can appoint deacons to serve the tables, that’s awesome. But what if you can’t? Then you need to take time away from something else in order to serve tables. You might not have as much time for sermon preparation or prayer as you’d like. But is neglecting legitimate needs of the congregation a viable option? Probably not. Of course, not everything that is a “need” is really needed, so it is important to assess things carefully on the spectrum of “need” versus “want.” And sometimes, what is needed is not what you want to do.

I applaud the many godly people who are “taking one for the team” and ministering in areas or situations that are not their first choice. But I fear that there are others who have the wrong frame of mind regarding working outside of “giftedness” or “primary calling.” In the context of missions, this shows up among both field missionaries and the churches on the home side that support them. 

Some missionaries are not able to use their strongest gifts as they would like, and they are unhappy about it, even bitter perhaps. Whether it is because of language limitations, the lack of an established congregation to preach to, or a request from their organization to do admin work, some missionaries are doing things that they didn’t think they’d be doing. After all the rhetoric about reaching the unreached and facilitating a church planting movement, they are pushing pixels in an office or teaching songs to a group of kids who would rather make fart sounds than sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” These missionaries would love to do more. They could do so much more. But they are “stuck” in a situation where they can’t. Not for now, at least. 

A number of years ago, there was a period of time when my wife was not well and I was stuck taking care of our toddler for long periods of time. We had just moved into a new ministry situation, and I was eager to get going. I wanted to do evangelism and church ministry with the local pastor. I resented the fact that my wife couldn’t help with our toddler more than she did because I secretly thought that she was capable of much more than she claimed she was. In any case, I made my feelings known and it wasn’t pretty. However, it was my fault for having the wrong attitude and exhibiting a lack of trust in my wife (and a lack of creativity with how much I could do with a toddler in tow). I wasn’t doing the ministry that I came to do and felt like I was wasting both time and money: my time and the money of those who were supporting us to do church planting. I should have had the perspective that this was just for a season, and been content with God’s (unexpected) calling for me during that period of time. Unlike the Apostle Paul, I had not yet learned to be content in every situation (Phil. 4:11). I am still working on that, by the way.

But it is not only missionaries on the field who can become discontent when they are doing work other than what they came to do. Some supporters don’t like it either. In larger mission organizations, it is not uncommon for missionaries to be asked to fill support or admin roles for a period of time. It may be for only a few months, or it may be a number of years. But in order to facilitate the productive ministry of the community of missionaries as a whole, certain roles need to be filled in terms of regional leadership, coordinating short-term teams, managing holiday homes for missionaries, or doing accounting. I know missionaries who were doing church planting, and were asked to fill another role for a season because there was no one else to do it. And after much prayer and weighing the options, they agreed to help out.  But after making a difficult decision to leave doing what they loved for a time in order to “take one for the team,” they were met with doubt and disapproval by some on the homeside. In one case, a supporting church reduced a couple’s financial support because they were no longer doing “priority” ministry. I appreciate that churches need to set priorities for spending their missions budget, but it would be great if churches met news of their missionaries' change of ministry with openness and understanding, instead of suspicion and disappointment. If the church secretary is out sick, will you cut the pastor’s salary if he needs to print and fold the Sunday bulletin, instead of putting more time into sermon prep?  Probably not, but that’s not much different than cutting missionaries’ financial support because they are doing an admin or support role for a period of time.

No matter who we are, we need to take a big picture approach with the right attitude. We can’t always be doing the ministry that we’d like to be doing, and neither can everybody else.  Stuff needs to get done and sometimes there is no one else to do it. If we are not doing what we feel most gifted for, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are being disobedient to God’s will. We can’t always ask, “What do I feel called to?” but rather “What needs to be done?”

In the body of Christ, we all need to work together. Ideally, the eyes will be doing the eyes’ job and the ears will be doing the ears’ job, and as each part works properly, the body of Christ builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). But sometimes the eyes are injured or unavailable, and the ears need to do double duty to help the body do its tasks. The ears need to be extra attentive to gather information about things that the eyes would normally report on. In those cases, let not the ears grumble at the extra work, or the other parts of the body criticize the ears for trying to fill in for the eyes. The Apostle Paul reminds us to “not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

If not all parts of the body are present and functioning, some parts will have to pull a bigger load for a season. And that’s okay, because serving the Lord is not about finding personal fulfillment in using your gifts, but rather finding contentment in doing whatever needs to be done so that God would be glorified. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

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